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Referrals in the Modern Age: Why They Are Different and How to Adapt

February 25, 2019

In the last ten years, the referral pipeline has been dramatically disrupted.

In tax and accounting, our vertical has historically been built on Word of Mouth. Many CPAs, EAs and tax professionals believe that their best long-term clients come from referrals from existing clients and colleagues. These drive the right types of leads and provide steady growth for the typical accounting or tax practice.

But does this still hold true for the industry?

In reality, the modern-day referral process is no longer done in a vacuum. Happy clients do not necessarily lead directly to new clients by passing on their opinion on how great you are. While people still ask advice from their colleagues, friends, and family when it comes time to hire a professional services provider (like an accountant or tax pro), there is now a very important middle man to keep in mind:

The internet.

In between someone hearing your name from a client and them hiring you to handle their accounting needs, the vast majority of people will stop to research you, your practice, and your reputation. Whether they do that from a phone, tablet, or computer, the lesson is the same: without a solid online reputation and social proof, that referral that could have brought you a new client may now be a dead end — and you don’t even realize what you missed out on.

So, how are modern firms adapting their strategies to stay relevant and keep the referral pipeline humming? Let’s explore some of the paths to success.

Reviews

When someone receives your name from a client, what is the first thing they are most likely to do? They’ll Google you. And what is the first thing they see on the results page? Probably reviews.

If you have a Google My Business listing (which we highly recommend), then a prospect searching for your practice will see your listing on the right-hand side of the webpage, with things like your contact information, website link, and — you guessed it — reviews. If this is one of your first potential touch points with a prospect, then it is all the more vital to ensure you have plenty of positive reviews for them to read.

Aside from the GMB listing on the right side, many of the top search results will probably be other results that include reviews of your firm; for instance, TaxBuzz, CountingWorks, Yelp, Facebook, and more. With 97% of consumers saying they read reviews about local businesses, putting in the effort to build up your reviews can drastically increase the number of referrals that actually convert to paying clients.

Not sure how to start getting more reviews? Just ask! According to BrightLocal, 7 out of 10 consumers will leave a review for a business if they’re asked to. Reach out to your happy clients and ask them to review you on sites like Google, TaxBuzz, and CountingWorks.

Website

Another channel that potential clients are likely to check when researching you is your website. Does it showcase your strengths, any specializations you have, and the ways you weave technology into your client relationships? Does it look modern and professional? Is it up-to-date and optimized for mobile?

All of these questions can be summarized like this: Is your website an accurate representation of your practice, and does it make clients want to work with you?

When a potential client comes to your website, they should easily be able to understand the message you are trying to get across. It should match what you want them to think about you (without being dishonest, of course). Your photos and headshots should be current and professional. There should be several different options for how they can get in touch with you directly, whether by phone, email, or a form on your site to request an appointment or more information. Reviews from third party websites should be front and center on your homepage.

Whereas reviews cannot be handpicked by your practice, how you present yourself via your website is entirely in your control. Taking advantage of that opportunity can be a deciding factor in whether or not a prospect chooses to act on a referral or not.

Social media

Many accountants are unsure if it is worth it to maintain active social media profiles for their practice. After all, with the number of social networks in play these days — Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram, to name a few — you could be looking at hours of work each month, not to mention the extra time spent building your following and engaging with others on the platform.

It is no small feat, but it is extremely important for keeping the referral pipeline flowing.

Social media profiles tend to rank pretty highly on search, and if you have a strong presence on several platforms, it can prove to prospects that you are a modern firm that is invested in participating in the public conversation for your areas of expertise. In addition, many referrals now take place within social media sites. If you do not have a strong and active presence you make it harder for your biggest fans to refer you.

It can be daunting for many accountants and tax professionals to get their practice active on social media. After a long day of work, we know an accountant or tax pro probably is not thinking of an interesting thing to say on their Facebook business page. Many of our clients don’t consider themselves “social media gurus” and don’t have the time or technical knowledge to maximize their business’s social media profiles.

At CountingWorks PRO, we make it easy to get your business fully set up on the most popular social media networks. We’ll then post great accounting and tax content for your clients, referral sources, and prospects.

Focus on verticals

When looking at the various ways the accounting and tax industries have been transforming in recent years, one new expectation that has emerged is for professionals to act as financial and business specialists for their clients. These changing demands have influenced many firms, CPAs, and EAs to pursue niche business verticals and begin offering high-value specialized services.

Focusing on very specific industry verticals will not only lead to higher levels of expertise for professionals in what has become an extremely competitive market, but will also improve the referral pipeline for their practice. For instance, if you specialize in a few verticals, one of which is “smart retail,” then there is a much higher likelihood of your practice being able to build authority in that vertical and become the “go-to” option in your market. Then, when other small business owners in the “smart retail” vertical ask their network for advice, you have earned a referral through your specialization, expertise, and reputation in the market.

Use of technology in client experience

Most of the world is continuing to integrate technology into daily life, and business is no exception. Your clients — whether small businesses, huge enterprises, or individual taxpayers — will more than likely expect you to do the same.

So, how are you making your clients’ lives easier through technology?

Perhaps you offer a secure portal for clients to sign forms and submit information remotely. Maybe you send all updates and newsletters via email to cut down on the papers clients have to sift through. You can even show all the different 3rd party software that you can integrate into a relationship (e.g. Quickbooks, Receipt Bank, etc).

When that research time comes, ensuring that your use of technology in client experience is evident across your digital presence will allow prospects to see the full picture of what it would really be like to work with you. They should be able to easily see the ways you are keeping your practice modernized through their research.

Social proof

Social proof is “a psychological phenomenon where people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect correct behavior for a given situation.” Essentially, this comes down to proving you are who you claim to be through others backing you up. In the era of reviews, testimonials, and social media, it matters what people are saying about you — and it matters if clients and prospects can find proof of your reputation online.

So, knowing that others are making judgments about your credibility, expertise, and more based on their overall impression of you, do you think it is important to invest in building social proof? Definitely!

There are plenty of ways to build social proof. For instance, you can use your social media to engage with other experts or “influencers.” You can ask all your clients to leave reviews or see if they are willing to have a testimonial featured on your site. Getting quoted in the media and linking to these articles from your website is another great example. Endorsements from peers in the industry build social proof, as well.

The important thing is to start as soon as possible. Social proof takes time to build, but it is a vital piece of converting referrals into paying customers.

How to take action

Now that we have a better understanding of how the referral pipeline has changed in recent years, the only thing left to do is start! There are several ways to receive more referrals for your practice:

Just ask: Asking for anything can feel difficult, especially when someone is already paying you to help them. That being said, clients are surprisingly willing to help you when they are happy with the work you have done. A study by Bain & Co. indicated that 87% of contented customers would gladly pass along names, but only 7% of sales reps ever asked them.

This can be as easy as it sounds. Just ask your current clients if there is anyone they could introduce you to that may be in need of your services. You could even spin it and ask for advice: “I love working with people like you, particularly people who have XYZ challenge. If you were in my position, what would you do to find more clients like you?”

There are many channels this can play out through. For instance, ask clients for referrals in your monthly newsletters, email signature, or a referral page on your website. To make it even easier for your clients to pass along names, you can utilize web-enabled tools like the CountingWorks PRO website referral tool. We even add referral banners to the intro of every email newsletter we send on our clients’ behalf.

Attract referrals naturally: Beyond asking, you can set your practice up for success by ensuring that the proper channels are in place to make it as easy as possible for clients to refer you to their network. This includes the more typical active social media profiles like Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as more localized options like Nextdoor. There are plenty of funnels available to attract additional referrals — you just have to look in the right place.

The referral pipeline has been disrupted, but this does not have to decrease the number of new clients you have coming in. The easy and practical steps we discussed above will help your practice ensure that the referrals you receive are leading to profitable client relationships.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about how to improve your practice’s online reputation and increase your referrals, contact us today at 1-800-442-2477 x3 or set up some time to speak with one of our digital marketing experts. We’re here to help!


Pro advice, ideas, and information to help your practice get going and grow.

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Lauren Detweiler

My passion lies in storytelling. I start work every day aiming to convey the right messaging to the right people, and the role of content manager for the CountingWorks PRO team allows me to do that for both our company and clients across the country. After graduating university, I traveled and worked remotely across 5 continents for 3 years before finally landing in Berlin.

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